Rolling Up Our Sleeves: The Japanese Way

My team on lunch break the first day.

Ishinomaki is nothing short of pristine.  It was deep night when we arrived, so I was unable to take in my surroundings when we first pulled into town.  Over the course of the next few days, however, the small villages surrounding the town came alive in the frosty early morning air and evening chill as we drove to and from the gymnasium we were staying to the work-site, a good two hours away.  The coastline was too ravaged by the tsunami to host us, so we bused in each morning leaving our ‘camp’ around 6:30 am and arriving around 8:30.  From this point, we met with the local volunteer coordinator, who assigned us our work for the day, splitting us into different work groups and sending us on shorter journeys to local towns around the coast.

On these short open-air rides in fishermen’s utility vehicles, I felt like I stepped into a different Japan.  I knew we were operating in a disaster zone, but it felt deceivingly like Western Pennsylvania as we looped through the rolling hills, taking in the crisp air and the beautiful pines before plunging down towards the coastline again.  One minute I was enjoying the mountain air and the next minute our truck would emerge into a scene straight from the media reports.   The contrast between Ishinomaki’s former beauty and its current state-of-affairs took me by surprise each and every day.  I could certainly understand why the people had made Ishinomaki their home, however.  After living in the never-ending hustle and boxed rigidness of Tokyo, this place was vibrant and peaceful all at the same time.

Our Location: Ishinomaki. From north to south, the areas marked are: Ishinomaki; Sendai; Fukushima; ICU (my campus)

Nippon Foundation with the help of the Nikkei Youth Network organized my trip, and students from more than 20 nations joined me in the effort to help the Tohoku area.  Originally, we were scheduled to do a mud-busting trip – the organizers had planned for the student group to remove mud from homes, shoveling away the dirt and debris that had prevented many from sorting through whatever valuables had been left behind in the March 11 madness.  On our arrival, the residents of Ishinomaki had a different schedule for us – and one that I couldn’t have enjoyed being a part of more.

As the fishermen tell it, Ishinomaki is home to one of the largest oyster operations in Japan.  The area prides itself on an oyster supply that has contributed to Japan’s export product for decades now.  The people of Ishinomaki are a small and tightly knit community.  There are about 30 families in the area where we operated.  Most, thankfully, had survived the tsunami.  They were saved by the mountains, which protrude from their small piece of coastline.  Instead of running inland, they were able to run up and escape the incredible pull of the sea that had for so long served as a friend and provider.  Two out of the roughly 120 people that live in this small town have not been found, but as the Japanese self-defense force labored on to find bodies that have not yet been recovered, the people of Ishinomaki have turned their attention to a concern nearly as great – how do they revive the damaged oyster industry that has fed their families for decades?

This was one time that I could kick myself for not speaking more Japanese – the old fishermen and their wives were more than willing to talk – and while they seemed slightly skeptical of our assistance the first day (we were the first volunteer group to arrive to their town) they had more than embraced our assistance by the third.  They were full of stories to share.  They wanted to tell us about where their homes had previously stood, how the oyster business operated, and what daughter or son was looking for a potential marriage partner.  For all of the damage done and for all of the pain had, there was a sense that many of the people living in Ishinomaki simply wanted to get back to business as usual.

My job for two days: scavenging for shells to be reused in the oyster business.

So, we did what we could.  We picked up our respective tools, put on our safety helmets and gloves, and did whatever the fishermen instructed us to do.  There were 125 student volunteers in my group – a mix of international students and Japanese, undergraduate and graduate.  We divided up into teams of 10 and were sorted into different projects.  Some moved anchors that had been washed ashore, some collected buoys that had been dislodged from their purpose of harboring baby oyster eggs at sea, some sorted the literally millions of oyster shells that had been strewn all over the beaches.  There were even a few that did the job we originally came for and tackled the tons of mud that had infiltrated many of the homes.   We all worked, however, side-by-side with the fishermen and their wives.  We had three sun-filled days of good labor and we definitely were able to reach a few milestones.  We helped clear the way for the process of oyster production to begin again as we gathered supplies and cleaned out the working areas.

The fisherman's life preservers.

In the end, though, I looked back and felt somewhat defeated, as I could see how little we accomplished in the grand scheme of the destruction.  For all of the hard work and for all the hands that were present, it hardly seemed to make a dent in the immense amount of work that needed to be done – not only to revive the oyster industry, but simply to clear out the vast wasteland created by the tsunami.  It was hard to leave after just three days – knowing full well that Ishinomaki would take years to recover.  Someone told me that it would normally have taken the Ishinomaki garbage processing plant 36 years to deal with the amount of rubble that had appeared after the March 11 quake.  Sadly, the plant had been damaged in the earthquake and was still inoperable when we arrived.  While the national government was working hard, it was clear that the demands of Japan’s eastern coastline would continue to overwhelm the government.  After all, Ishinomaki is comprised of many little villages – and there were hundreds of small towns in need of immediate, large-scale assistance.  It was daunting to realize how much was still left to be done.

After reflecting on the experience, however, it was hopeful to look back to the fishermen and their wives who were so resilient and strong.  I am positive they held so much pain inside each day as they surveyed what used to be their homes and businesses.  But they greeted us each morning with a smile and oftentimes a laugh and got to work like today was a day like any other.  I will definitely think on each of them whenever I am going through a rough time, for they have experienced a tragedy few have encountered, and they are smiling through it day-by-day.  I hope for the people of Ishinomaki and Japan, not because of the aid or volunteers that will support their recovery, but because of the spirit of the Japanese people that continues to inspire and amaze me.

A temple nested in the mountains survives without damage.

Volunteer efforts will continue.

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